Pentagon Seeks More Afghan Surveillance Drones in Shift

The Pentagon is seeking congressional approval to shift as much as $641 million in funding for intelligence and surveillance to priorities such as expanding Afghanistan operations of a Boeing Co. drone for Navy commandos.

The request for the “reprogramming” of previously approved military intelligence funds was submitted yesterday to the four congressional defense committees in a 20-page document. It follows an $8.2 billion request on June 29 to shift funds for other defense programs.

The $94.2 million sought for the ScanEagle drones made by Chicago-based Boeing would provide more ground stations. Six sites operated by contractors in Iraq would be moved to Afghanistan and ground stations operated by Navy SEALs would be doubled to eight from four.

The surveillance drones are vital to supporting Afghan local police and village-stability efforts “aimed at building an enduring, self-reliant Afghani general population able to resist insurgent” threats, according to the document.

While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has cited progress in such efforts, others have questioned the prospects for stability in Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai.

“A transition that focuses primarily on Afghan security force levels and capabilities cannot adequately address the flaws in governance that have alienated ordinary Afghans from the Karzai administration and fueled the insurgency,” Stephen Hadley, national security adviser under President George W. Bush, and John Podesta, a White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, wrote in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Africa Command

The Pentagon’s unclassified reprogramming request provides a window into U.S. military intelligence systems and their missions. Among the items sought is $2.6 million to purchase hardware and software for an intelligence-gathering and dissemination system the U.S. Africa Command can use to share data with partner nations.

The reprogramming documents must be approved by the congressional defense committees -- the authorization and appropriations panels in the House and Senate -- before the shift takes effect.

Monitoring Pirates

The ScanEagle gained international attention when the Navy revealed in April 2009 it used the drone to monitor a lifeboat off Somalia where pirates held hostage the captain of an American-flagged container ship.

The Boeing ScanEagle weighs 40 pounds (18 kilograms) and has a wingspan of 10 feet (3 meters). The planes, under the direction of seven-member Navy Special Warfare teams, have flown more than 5,600 hours of reconnaissance since November 2008, according to Navy officials.

The U.S. Central Command told Bloomberg News in July 2010 that the unmanned planes have “supported missions to kill or capture over 40 high-value individuals,” spotted weapons caches and thwarted efforts to ambush troop convoys or plant roadside bombs.

The plane is built by Insitu Inc., a Boeing subsidiary based in Bingen, Washington.

Money to pay for such initiatives would be shifted from numerous programs within unclassified military intelligence accounts, reflecting savings in contract negotiations, reduced requirements or funds once spent in Iraq and now available for Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon document.

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